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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

John, Epistles of

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JOHN, EPISTLES OF . The three Epistles known by this name have from the beginning been attributed to the Apostle John, and were admitted as canonical in the 3rd century. Some points of obvious similarity in style and diction indicate a connexion between them, but their internal character and the external evidence in their favour are so different that it will be convenient to deal with them separately.

I. First Epistle

1. Authorship, Genuineness, etc . The Epistle ranked from the first among the Homologoumena , and the testimony in favour of its authenticity is early, varied, and explicit. Its great similarity to the Fourth Gospel in phraseology and general characteristics made it natural to attribute the two documents to the same author; and few questions, or none, were raised upon the subject till comparatively recent years. A very small number of eminent critics at present dispute the identity of authorship.

(1) So far as external evidence is concerned, Polycarp, writing about a.d. 115 to the Philippians, quotes the words, ‘For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is antichrist,’ with evident allusion to 1 John 4:3 , though the author is not named. Polycarp was a disciple of John, as his own disciple Irenæus informs us. Eusebius several times refers to this Epistle, saying ( HE 1 John 4:20 ) that Papias used it and ( 1 John 4:8 ) that Irenæus made free use of it. The passages 1 John 2:18 ; 1 John 5:1 are expressly attributed by Irenæus to the Apostle. According to the Muratorian Canon, Epistle and Gospel were closely associated: ‘What wonder that John makes so many references to the Fourth Gospel in his Epistle, saying of himself’ and then follows a quotation of 1 John 1:1 . Clement of Alexandria at the close of the 2nd cent. quotes 516 as the words of ‘John in his larger Epistle.’ Tertullian quotes the language of 1 John 1:1 as that of the Apostle John, and Origen definitely refers the words of 1 John 3:8 to ‘John in his catholic Epistle.’ All the ancient versions include the Epistle among those canonically recognized, including the Peshitta and the Old Latin. The only exceptions to this practically universal recognition of its genuineness and authenticity are the unbelievers vaguely called Alogi , because they rejected the doctrine of the Logos, and Marcion, who accepted no books of NT except St. Luke’s Gospel and St. Paul’s Epistles. So far as external testimony is concerned, the early recognition of the Epistle as written by St. John is conclusively established.

(2) The similarily of diction between Gospel and Epistle is so close that it cannot be accidental, and it cannot escape the notice of the most superficial reader. The repeated use, in a characteristic way, of such cardinal words as Life, Love, Truth, Light, and Darkness; the recurrence of phrases which in both documents figure as watchwords, ‘to be of the truth,’ ‘of the devil,’ ‘of the world’; ‘the only begotten Son,’ ‘the Word,’ ‘knowing God,’ ‘walking in the light,’ ‘overcoming the world,’ and the special use of the word ‘believe,’ speak for themselves. The use of literary parallels always requires care; but in this case the similarity is so close as incontestably to establish a connexion between the two documents, whilst the handling of the same vocabulary is so free as irresistibly to suggest, not that the writer of the Gospel borrowed from the Epistle, or vice versa , but that the two writings proceed from the same hand. If this is so, the genuineness of each is doubly attested.

Jos. [Note: Josephus.] Scaliger in the 16th cent. was practically the first to challenge the genuineness of all three Epistles, but not until the time of Baur and the Tübingen school of critics in the last century was a sustained attack made upon them. Since that time there have never been wanting critics who have denied the Johannine authorship of the First Epistle. Some contend that Gospel and Epistle proceed from the same author, who, however, was not the Apostle John, but John the Presbyter or some later writer. The view taken by Holtzmann, Schmiedel, and some others is that the two documents come from different writers who belong to the same general school of thought.

The chief ground of the objections raised against the Johannine authorship of the First Epistle is the alleged presence of references to heretical modes of thought which belong to a later age. Docetism, Gnosticism, and even Montanism are, it is said, directly or indirectly rebuked, and these forms of error do not belong to the Apostolic period. The reply is threefold, ( a ) Those who ascribe the Epistle to John the Apostle do not date it before the last decade of the 1st cent., when the Apostolic age was passing into the sub-Apostolic. ( b ) No references to full-grown Gnosticism and other errors as they were known in the middle of the 2nd cent. can here be found. But ( c ) it can be shown from other sources that the germs of these heresies, the general tendencies which resulted afterwards in fully developed systems, existed in the Church for at least a generation before the period in question, and at the time named were both rife and mischievous.

The points chiefly insisted on are: the doctrine of the Lagos; the form of the rebuke given to the antichrists; the references to ‘knowledge’ and ‘anointing’; the insistence upon the coming of Christ in the flesh, in condemnation of Docetic error; the distinction between mortal and venial sins; and some minor objections. In reply, it may he said that none of these is definite or explicit enough to require a later date than a.d. 100. The Epistle is indeed indirectly polemic in its character. While constructive in thought, the passing references made in it to opponents of the truth are strong enough to make it clear that the opposition was active and dangerous. But there is nothing to show that any of those condemned as enemies of Christ had more fully developed tendencies than, for example, Cerinthus is known to have manifested in his Christology at the end of the 1st century. Judaizing Gnosticism had appeared much earlier than this, as is evidenced by the Epistles to the Colossians and the Pastoral Epistles. The use of the words ‘Paraclete’ (2:1) and ‘propitiation’ (2:2), and the way in which the coming of Christ is mentioned in 2:28, have also been brought forward as proofs of divergence from the teaching of the Gospel, on very slender and unconvincing grounds.

2. Place and Date . Whilst very little evidence is forthcoming to enable us to fix exactly either of these, the general consensus of testimony points very decidedly to Ephesus during the last few years of the 1st century. Irenæus ( adv. Hær . iii. 1) testifies to the production of the Gospel by St. John during his residence in Asia, and the probability is that the Epistle was written after the Gospel, and is. chronologically perhaps the very latest of the books of the NT. If, as some maintain, it was written before the Gospel. it cannot be placed much earlier. The determination of this question is bound up with the authorship and date of the Apocalypse, a subject which is discussed elsewhere. (See Revelation [Book of]).

3. Form and Destination This document has some of the characteristics of a letter, and in some respects it is more like a theological treatise or homiletical essay. It may best be described as an Encyclical or Pastoral Epistle. It was addressed to a circle of readers, as is shown by the words, ‘I write unto you,’ ‘beloved,’ and ‘little children,’ but it was not restricted to any particular church, nor does it contain any specific personal messages. The term ‘catholic epistle’ was used from very early times to indicate this form of composition, but in all probability the churches of Asia Minor were kept more especially in view by the writer when he penned words which were in many respects suitable for the Church of Christ at large. A reference in Augustine to 3:2 as taken from John’s ‘Epistle to the Parthians’ has given rise to much conjecture, but the title has seldom been taken seriously in its literal meaning. It is quite possible that there is some mistake in the text of the passage ( Quæsœ. Evang . ii. 39).

4. Outline and Contents . Whether Gospel or Epistle was written first, the relation between the two is perfectly clear. In both the Apostle writes for edification, but in the Gospel the foundations of Christian faith and doctrine are shown to lie in history; in the Epistle the effects of belief are traced out in practice. In both the same great central truths are exhibited, in the same form and almost in the same words; but in the Gospel they are traced to their fount and origin; in the Epistle they are followed out to their only legitimate issues in the spirit and conduct of Christians in the world. So far as there is a difference in the presentation of truth, it may perhaps be expressed in Bishop Westcott’s words: ‘The theme of the Epistle is, the Christ is Jesus; the theme of the Gospel is, Jesus is the Christ.’ Or, as he says in another place: ‘The substance of the Gospel is a commentary on the Epistle: the Epistle is (so to speak) the condensed moral and practical application of the Gospel.’

The style is simple, but baffling in its very simplicity. The sentences are easy for a child to read, their meaning is difficult for a wise man fully to analyze. So with the sequence of thought. Each statement follows very naturally upon the preceding, but when the relation of paragraphs is to be explained, and the plan or structure of the whole composition is to be described, systematization becomes difficult, if not impossible. Logical analysis is not. however, always the best mode of exposition, and if the writer has not consciously mapped out into exact subdivisions the ground he covers, he follows out to their issues two or three leading thoughts which he keeps consistently in view throughout. The theme is fellowship with the Father and the Son, realized in love of the brethren. Farrar divides the whole into three sections, with the headings,’ God is light,’ ‘God is righteous,’ ‘God is love.’ Plummer reduces these to two, omitting the second. With some such general clue to guide him, the reader will not go far astray in interpreting the thought of the Epistle, and its outline might be arranged as follows:

Introduction : The life of fellowship that issues from knowledge of the gospel ( 1 John 1:1-4 ).

i. God is Light. The believer’s walk with God in light (1 John 1:5-10 ); sin and its remedy ( 1 John 2:1-6 ); the life of obedience ( 1 John 2:7-17 ): fidelity amidst defection ( 1 John 2:18-29 ).

ii. God is Righteous Love. True sonship of God manifested in brotherly love (1 John 3:1-12 ). Brotherhood in Christ a test of allegiance and a ground of assurance ( 1 John 3:13-24 ). The spirits of Truth and Error ( 1 John 4:1-6 ). The manifestation of God as Love the source and inspiration of all loving service ( 1 John 4:7-21 ). The victory of faith in Love Incarnate ( 1 John 5:1-12 ).

Conclusion : The assured enjoyment of Life Eternal ( 1 John 5:13-21 ).

Such an outline is not, however, a sufficient guide to the contents of the Epistle, and a very different arrangement might be justified. The writer does not, however, as has been asserted, ‘ramble without method,’ nor is the Epistle a ‘shapeless mass.’ The progress discernible in it is not the straightforward march of the logician who proceeds by ordered steps from premises to a foreseen conclusion: it is rather the ascent by spiral curves of the meditative thinker. St. John is here no dreamer; more practical instruction is not to be found in St. Paul or St. James. But his exhortations do not enter into details: he is concerned with principles of conduct, the minute application of which he leaves to the individual conscience. The enunciation of principles, however, is uncompromising and very searching. His standpoint is that of the ideal Christian life, not of the effort to attain it. One who is born of God ‘cannot sin’; the ‘love of God is perfected’ in the believer, and perfect love casts out fear. The assured tone of the Epistle allows no room for doubt or hesitation or conflict one who is guided by its teaching has no need to pray. ‘Help thou my unbelief.’ The spirit of truth and the spirit of error are in sharp antagonism’ and the touchstone which distinguishes them must be resolutely applied. The ‘world,’ the ‘evil one,’ and ‘antichrist’ are to be repelled absolutely and to the uttermost; the writer and those whom he represents can say, ‘We know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in the evil one.’ Bright light casts deep shadows, and the true Christian of this Epistle walks in the blaze of gospel day. One who knows the true God and has eternal life cannot but ‘guard himself from idols.’

The writer of such an Epistle is appropriately called the Apostle of love. Yet the title taken by itself is misleading. He is the Apostle equally of righteousness and of faith. He ‘loved well because he hated hated the wickedness which hinders loving.’ There is a stern ring, implying however no harshness, about the very exhortations to love, which shows how indissolubly it is to be identified with immutable and inviolable righteousness. If to this Epistle we owe the great utterance, ‘God is Love’ here twice repeated, but found nowhere else in Scripture to it we owe also the sublime declaration, ‘God is Light, and in him is no darkness at all.’ And the Epistle, as well as the Gospel, makes it abundantly clear that the spring of Christian love and the secret of Christian victory over evil are alike to be found in ‘believing’: in the immovable and ineradicable faith that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is come in the flesh, and that in Him the love of God to man is so manifested and assured that those who trust Him already possess eternal life, together with all that it implies of strength and joy, and all that flows from it of obedience and loving service.

Textual questions can hardly be touched upon in this article. But it is perhaps worth pointing out that whilst the corrected text restores the Utter half of 1 John 2:23 , which in AV [Note: Authorized Version.] is printed in italics as doubtful, there can now be no question that the passage ( 1 John 5:7-8 ) referring to the three witnesses in heaven, as read in AV [Note: Authorized Version.] . does not form part of the Epistle. The words are wanting in all Greek MSS except a few of exceedingly late date; nor are they found in the majority of the Greek Fathers, or in any ancient version except the Latin. They undoubtedly form a gloss which found its way into the text from Latin sources; and the insertion really breaks the connexion of thought in the paragraph.

II. The Second Epistle . The Second and Third Epistles of St. John are distinguished from the First by their brevity, the absence of dogmatic teaching, and their private and personal character. They are found among the Antilegomena of the early Church in their relation to the Canon: apparently not because they were unknown, or because their authorship was questioned, but because their nature made them unsuitable for use in the public worship of the Church. The Muratorian Canon (a.d. 180) refers to two Epistles of John as received in the Catholic Church, and Irenæus about the same date specifically quotes 2 John 1:10 f. as coming from ‘John the disciple of the Lord.’ He also quotes 2 John 1:7 apparently as occurring in the First Epistle. Clement of Alexandria by a mention of John’s ‘larger Epistle’ shows that he was acquainted with at least one other shorter letter. Origen states that the two shorter letters were not accepted by all as genuine, but he adds that ‘both together do not contain a hundred lines.’ Dionysius of Alexandria appeals to them, adding that John’s name was not affixed to them, but that they were signed ‘the presbyter.’ They are omitted from the Peshitta Version, and Eusebius describes them as disputed by some, but in the later 4th cent. they were fully acknowledged and received into the Canon. The Second Epistle, therefore, though not universally accepted from the first, was widely recognized as Apostolic, and so short a letter of so distinctly personal a character could never have been ranked by the Church among her sacred writings except upon the understanding that it bore with it the authority of the Apostle John. The title ‘the Elder’ does not militate against this, but rather supports it. No ordinary presbyter would assume the style of the elder and write in such a tone of absolute command, whilst an anonymous writer, wishing to claim the sanction of the Apostle, would have inserted his name. But no motive for anything like forgery can in this case be alleged. The similarity in style to the First Epistle is very marked. Jerome among the Fathers, Erasmus at the time of the Reformation, and many modern critics have ascribed the Epistle to ‘John the Presbyter’ of Ephesus, but there is no early reference to such a person except the statement of Papias quoted by Eusebius and referred to in a previous article.

Much discussion has arisen concerning the person addressed. The two leading opinions are (1) that the words ‘elect lady and her children are to be understood literally of a Christian matron in Ephesus and her family; and (2) that a church personified, with its constituent members, was intended. Jerome in ancient times took the latter view, and in our own day it has been supported by scholars so different from one another as Lightfoot, Wordsworth, Hilgenfeld, and Schmiedel. It is claimed on this side that the exhortations given are more suited to a community, that ‘the children of thine elect sister’ can be understood only of a sister church, and that this mode of describing a church personified is not unusual, as in 1 Peter 5:13 , ‘She that is in Babylon, elect together with you, saluteth you.’ On the other hand, it is urged that this mystical interpretation destroys the simplicity and natural meaning of the letter (see especially 1 Peter 5:5 ; 1 Peter 5:10 ), that the church being constituted of members, the distinction between the ‘lady’ and her ‘children’ would disappear, and that if the lady be a private person of influence the parallel with the form of salutation to another private person in the Third Epistle is complete. This hypothesis still leaves difficulty in the exact interpretation of the words Eklektç Kyria . Some would take both these as the proper names of the person addressed; others take the former as her name, so that she would be ‘the lady Eklektç,’ others would render ‘to the elect Kyria,’ whilst the majority accept, in spite of its indefiniteness, the translation of AV [Note: Authorized Version.] and RV [Note: Revised Version.] . On the whole, this course is to be preferred, though the view that a church is intended not only is tenable but has much in its favour. The fact that the early churches so often gathered in a house, and that there was so strong a personal and individual element in their community-life, makes the analogy between a primitive church and a large and influential family to be very close. Thus an ambiguity may arise which would not be possible to-day.

It remains only to say that, as in style, so in spirit, the similarity to 1 Jn. is very noticeable. The same emphasis is laid on love, on obedience, on fellowship with the Father and the Son, and the inestimable importance of maintaining and abiding in the truth. The same strong resentment is manifested against deceivers and the antichrist, and the same intensity of feeling against unbelievers or false teachers, who are not to be received into the house of a believer, or to have any kindly greeting accorded them. Whether the Epistle was actually addressed to a private person or to a Christian community, it furnishes a most interesting picture of the life, the faith, and the dangers and temptations of the primitive Christians in Asia Minor, and it contains wholesome and uncompromising, not harsh and intolerant, exhortation, such as Christian Churches in all ages may not unprofitably lay to heart.

III. Third Epistle . The two shorter Epistles of St. John were called by Jerome ‘twin sisters.’ They appear to have been recognized together at least from the time of Dionysius of Alexandria, and they are mentioned together by Eusebius ( HE iii. 25), who refers to the Epistles ‘called the second and third of John, whether they belong to the Evangelist or to another person of the same name.’ They are found together in the Old Latin Version, are both omitted from the Pesh., and they were included together in the lists of canonical books at the end of the 4th cent. by the Council of Laodicea and the Third Council of Carthage. References to the Third Epistle and quotations from it are naturally very few. It is short, it was written to a private person, it does not discuss doctrine, and its counsels and messages are almost entirely personal. But its close relationship to the Second Epistle is very obvious, and the two form companion pictures of value from the point of view of history; and St. John’s Third Epistle, like St. Paul’s personal letter to Philemon, is not without use for general edification.

The person to whom it is addressed is quite unknown. The name Gaius (Lat. Caius ) is very common, and three other persons so called are mentioned in NT, viz., Galus of Corinth ( 1 Corinthians 1:14 ; cf. Romans 16:23 ); Gaius of Derbe ( Acts 20:4 ); and Galus of Macedonia ( Acts 19:29 ). A bishop of Pergamos, appointed by the Apostle John and mentioned in the Apostolic Constitutions , was also called Gaius, and some critics are disposed to identify him with St. John’s correspondent. This is, however, a mere conjecture, and the letter is addressed, not to a church official, but to a private layman, apparently of some wealth and influence. It is written in a free and natural style, and deals with the case of some of those travelling evangelists who figured so prominently in the primitive Church, and to whom reference is made in the Didache and elsewhere. Some of these, perhaps commissioned by John himself, had visited the Church to which Gaius belonged, had been hospitably entertained by him, and helped forward on their journey, probably with material assistance. But Diotrephes an official of the church, perhaps its ‘bishop’ or a leading elder who loved power, asserted himself arrogantly, and was disposed to resist the Apostle’s authority. He declined to receive these worthy men who at their own charges were preaching the gospel in the district. He also stirred up feeling against them, and at least threatened to excommunicate any members of the church who entertained them. The evil example of Diotrephes is held up for condemnation, whilst in contrast to him, a certain Demetrius is praised, whose reputation in the Church was excellent, who had won the confidence of the Apostle, and higher commendation still had ‘the witness of the truth itself.’ Tried by the strictest and most searching test of all, the sterling metal of Demetrius’ character rang true. Full information is not given us as to all the circumstances of the case. Probably Diotrephes was not wholly to be blamed. It was quite necessary, as the Didache shows us, to inquire carefully into the character of these itinerant preachers. Some of them were mercenary in their aims, and the conflict of opinion in this instance may have had some connexion with the current controversies between Jewish and Gentile Christians. But it is the spirit of Diotrephes that is blameworthy, and the little picture here drawn of primitive ecclesiastical communities with their flaws and their excellences, their worthy members and ambitious officers, their generous hosts and kindly helpers, and the absent Apostle who bears the care of all the churches and is about to pay to this one a visit of fatherly and friendly inspection, is full of interest and instruction.

We have no information as to the time at which, or the places from and to which, these brief letters were written. They rank, with the Gospel and the First Epistle of St. John, as among the latest documents in the NT.

W. T. Davison.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'John, Epistles of'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/j/john-epistles-of.html. 1909.

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